HPD Blog

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Racing Times: Indy Week 2

Yep, one week down and we're all still here. Welcome to Week 2 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the weather's still changeable (on an almost hourly basis); there are still as many days with no track activity as there are days with cars on the track; the teams that can usually least afford problems have them; and from whence the Versus network continues to pleasantly surprise me with quality racing television.

Second verse, same as the first...

First and most important, Mike Conway was bounced out of Methodist Hospital after an overnight stay for bruised lungs and a concussion ("We ran a brain scan, found no brains. So yep, he's a race-car driver"). But, as per IndyCar SOP, he wouldn't be allowed to drive again until the following Friday.

Also, in Dreyer & Reinbold's "Land of the Crashed," the John Andretti chassis was repaired at Aerodyne early in the week, and was ready to go once practice resumed on Thursday.

Finally, as expected, Oriol Servia was named to drive the retro-looking Rahal Letterman Racing "DAFCA Special," replete in the late '60s-style dark blue-and-white paint scheme made famous by Dan Gurney's All-American Racers operation. This gave us 34 driver/car combinations, with a couple more expected by the weekend.

The TBAs that were in play were the second Conquest car (which actually needed an entire LR corner and various other bits to become functional), the second Dale Coyne car (which was as complete and ready to go as any Coyne car is the day before a race weekend), and the #48 Foyt Racing third car (which needed gearbox and suspension components to be ready).

Nothing that a few $$$ couldn't solve, right?

And don't forget that a couple of crashes could dramatically change the car-count situation, because time during the second qualifying weekend would be short to make repairs.

Thursday & Friday - Final Practice Days

Wednesday night saw a LOT of rain in the Indianapolis area, with the Speedway getting its fair share, so we awoke to a "green" track once again, washed clean of any grip-increasing rubber. However, the sun was out Thursday morning, and we got going after only a slight delay.

The storms did cause some damage around the track. The Foyt Racing pit cart was knocked over, and it took several crewmen (and a floor jack) to get it righted. The Vision Racing pit equipment also sustained cosmetic damage. Those two pit boxes are near the gap in the stands between Tower Terrace and the Pagoda, so perhaps that was a location where the wind gusts had more of an impact.

Over in the hospitality area, the awning was torn off the Panther Racing compound, leaving most of its support poles bent. But Panther quickly got another awning system from its shop and was up and running in time to serve lunch.

Meanwhile, just as AGR did for Tony Kanaan a week earlier, the Vision Racing team rolled out the 21T car for Ryan Hunter-Reay, as it appeared they had given up on getting speed out of the primary car. We would see if that helped, or if - like at the April race in Kansas - the problems on that side of the Vision garage went a bit deeper.

Justin Wilson ran the 18T car Thursday, shaking it down in advance of the announcement that Tomas Scheckter would drive it as #19 for the rest of the month.

Despite the limited number of rides available this year, there were a number of drivers walking around, lobbying and hoping. Dan Clarke was in the Foyt garage with his helmet this morning, joining the ranks of Roger Yasukawa, Jaques Lazier and Bruno Junqueira (the three most visible); plus longer-shots like Jeff Simmons, P.J. Chesson, Alex Barron, Thiago Medeiros and Phil Giebler.

Darren Manning gave up after last weekend and headed to Laguna Seca for a Grand-Am ride, while Buddy Rice never appeared at all - a move that may have cost him a shot at the second Conquest ride.

Meanwhile, Tomas spent a very large part of the afternoon sitting rather contentedly in the Coyne Racing pit box checking his Blackberry, while Wilson got the 18T into the 220+ range. Cat, meet canary.

Ed Carpenter took a turn in the #21T car, shaking it down before handing it over to Ryan Hunter-Reay, who got it up to 218.8 in just four laps, but then headed back to the garage. Still. Not. Happy.

Robert Doornbos was also on track in the repaired #06T car, and the #06 primary had also returned to the garage, as well.

Doornbos was expected to turn in a reasonably fast qualifying lap on Saturday. Why? Pit selection, baby. Everywhere else the IndyCar Series goes, pits are selected based on the points standings, and teams have to decide at the start of the year if they want to pit together (based on the average of a team's points) or pit apart (based on each car's points).

But at Indy, pit selection is based on qualifying speed, and the criterion for team's wishing to pit their cars together is the average speed for that team's cars. So, if Graham Rahal was fourth-quick and Robert Doornbos was eighth-quick, Newman/Haas/Lanigan would pick sixth, and so on.

We also said goodbye to "Frankencar," as the #27T/11T had a fresh wrap on it and was now in full 7-Eleven colors. TK and all of the AGR guys (along with all qualified teams) spent Thursday, Friday and mid-day portions of the weekend working on race setups, full-tank runs, drafting, etc.

With regard to the unqualified cars, as expected, Townsend Bell and Oriol Servia were quickly up to speed, with Bell over 220 and Servia not far from it. They would end Thursday the quickest. Buddy Lazier, however, had yet to crest 218.

Some of these teams (Hemelgarn, 3G, DRR) were going to need to make a big step up, or go home on Sunday.

Speaking of DRR, Davey Hamilton joined the "shakedown crew," taking a turn in the repaired car of Mike Conway, with Conway watching from pit lane.

In one nice change from last week, the track stayed green and crash-free for almost the entire day.

Hot rumor du jour for Friday: Marty Roth will be selling his IndyCar team cars and equipment to de Ferran Motorsports, and they'll be running at Milwaukee with Takuma Sato behind the wheel. Yeah. Making your IndyCar debut at the ancient bull ring that is Milwaukee makes ALL kinds of sense. Riiiiiiiight. Hey, I don't make this stuff up, I just pass it along...

Most of Friday was a repeat of Thursday. A lot of green-flag action as struggling teams threw "everything but the kitchen sink" setups at their cars in the search for speed, and the qualified teams worked ahead for Race Day. The rich get richer.

We did end up seeing a very nice race simulation at the end of practice, with Helio Castroneves, Alex Lloyd, Mario Moraes, Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick, Graham Rahal, Raphael Matos, and Dario Franchitti running in a large pack. Ryan Briscoe got in on the fun after awhile as well. There was even a bit of three-wide up the front straight and dive-bomb passing into Turn 1. Cool.

The Penske cars continued to set the pace, and the smart money has to be on Helio and Briscoe in particular, but KV Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing were showing good speed, in all conditions, as well. Don't forget Graham Rahal, either. Andretti Green Racing was, at least, honest in telling the media that they're struggling, and Wheldon also hadn't been quite as strong since his first weekend shunt, either.

The track went yellow at 5:30 p.m. for one of the strangest debris cautions ever seen at the 'ole Brickyard - specifically, some of the bricks in the Yard of Bricks came loose as the mortar failed. A piece of brick came right up through the floor of Mario Moraes' car! It quickly became apparent that the issue couldn't be fixed quickly, and practice was checkered at 5:45 pm.

Final Qualifying - Saturday and Sunday

Saturday dawned cloudy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after another round of overnight storms. The rain was expected to move out later in the morning, with strong winds remaining. And instead of the previous weekend's concert tribute to the urban '70s (George Clinton & P-Funk), the band du jour was the Plain White Ts, triggering the expectation of seeing a lot of junior-high-school kids in the crowd.

In a bit of a surprise - as primary car #34 for Alex Tagliani wasn't in the show yet - Conquest added a second entry for Bruno Junqueira. That made the #36 car the 36th and final driver/car combination for this year's 500.

Backing for the deal came from All Sport Energy Drink and Big Red, support that was originally intended for Buddy Rice. But there was some hiccup in that deal, so the agents headed it Bruno's way.

The deal came together late Friday night, leaving the crew a single late night to actually assemble a car, since the #36 was stripped of parts to fix the #34 that Tagliani crashed a week earlier.

As of Saturday morning, the #36 car was not fully together, but additional crew (hired overnight, primarily from Roth Racing) were working in the Conquest garage wearing new hard cards and fresh uniforms, reassembling the car. With a little bit of luck, they'd have it ready to go before the end of the day.

Tomas Scheckter's Mona Vie car had a new "paint job" - actually a "wrap" of cut-to-fit contact paper. The formerly black-and-red car was now black and blue, similar to the Danica Patrick "Motorola" colors.

Also, Azul Tequila has been announced as a new team sponsor for KV Racing. It will be on the KV Racing cars, a deal that was bound to make team co-owner Jimmy Vasser happy on several levels!!!

The Firestone timing stand in pit lane has become known as the "hot-dog stand" - cause it looks like one. And Saturday, it actually had a rack of Firestone-branded hot dogs on display - no doubt liberated from some local 7-Eleven in the middle of the night after they'd gotten rock solid. Some of them even say "Jack Arute" on them, so I'm sure they got some air time during the Versus qualifying broadcast.

Morning practice was uneventful - until the rain returned and delayed the start of qualifying for an hour or so.

Once we went green, the field was filled, led by "Bobby D" Doornbos at 221.692 mph. But the quickest guys of the day were in safely, with well-handling cars. It was those at the back of the provisional grid, struggling to save their lives in every corner, that were more "interesting" to watch.

For example, John Andretti completed one lap at 215.538 before waving off his first attempt. Andretti said the car "just plowed off of Turn 2" - meaning it was pushing badly - despite his attempts at fixing it. And it was, visibly sliding up toward the fence on the TV monitors.

Buddy Lazier was another, making an initial run of just 216 and change as his Hemelgarn car pushed up the hill in Turns 1-2 and was VERY tail-happy in Turns 3-4. Maybe the wind, maybe setup-probably both.

And (as usual), Milka Duno had a good first lap at 219.626, but then ran wide at Turn 1 and brushed the wall. She "waved herself off" on that run and pitted without waiting for the crew to call her in.

Then there was the ongoing saga of Ryan Hunter-Reay. Coached over the radio throughout his run, being told to "stick with it and work the rear bars," Hunter-Reay was still frustrated, telling the team that he still doesn't know where the speed is. When asked how the car felt, his curt reply was, "It's horrible."

Late in the day, the re-runs started with Andretti, who qualified at 219.4. Teammate Mike Conway was next and ran a 220.124. With about 15 minutes to go, Alex Tagliani followed and ran for an average of 220.553. He also had a moment at Turn 1 on his second lap where he nearly brushed the wall on the exit. His run filled the field and left Lazier on the bubble. Let the bumping begin!

As so it did, as Milka bumped Lazier with an average of 218.040. That for sure would not make it through Sunday.

With HVM's Nelson Phillipe "on the bubble," Stanton Barrett was the last driver out, and looked as though he would have enough speed after his first three laps were run at 218.104, 218.163, and 218.016. However, the last lap - 217.708 - dragged the average down to 217.998, meaning Barrett missed qualifying by two-hundredths of a second. Even so, it didn't really matter, as neither of the drivers in the 218s were expected to survive Sunday's final qualifying.

The weather conditions on Sunday were nearly perfect. Cool (in the '60s), very little wind. Practice was again uneventful, and it looked like everyone got the crashing out of their system during the previous week. Bruno Junqueira made his first appearance for Conquest and took just a half-dozen laps to run over 220 mph, then pitted after just two more laps, saying they just needed to trim the car out and they'd be ready to qualify.

When final qualifying got underway at noon, two things soon became apparent: 1) All racers are paranoid, and 2) Darwin rules: We're all willing to "eat our own young" to get into the show.

Bump Day began with withdrawals from both previous 218 mph qualifiers, as Philippe and Duno re-qualified significantly faster at 220.7 and 221.106, respectively. John Andretti was now on the bubble with an average of 219.442. Under Saturday's conditions, that might have been a safe number, but not today, not with Bruno J. about to run.

And sure enough, after just 15 total laps for the month, Junqueira bumped Andretti with an average of 221.115, fastest of the day to that point. So, now we had Andretti, Lazier and Barrett on the outside, looking in.

IF Andretti, who had struggled all month, was part of a single-car team, the field might just have been set with Bruno's run. But JA is part of the four-car Dreyer & Reinbold group, where Davey Hamilton found a setup that worked early in the month and easily qualified on the first weekend (the only DRR car to do so).

During the final qualifying weekend, Hamilton helped both Conway and Duno with setups and some driving tips, and they soon appeared to be safely in the field. As Andretti's car headed back to the garage area for more changes, others near the back of the field started getting nervous. The final hour (or so) would make for a VERY interesting Bump Day!

Hunter-Reay went first and raised his average from 219.5 to 220.4. Would that be enough? It left E.J. Viso on the bubble with an average of 219.971.

John Andretti emerged from the garage area. The crew had duplicated Hamilton's setup onto Andretti's car - the same trick that helped Mike Conway into the field earlier. Andretti was soon lapping at just around 220 mph in practice.

Buddy Lazier was reporting a car that was pushing in the middle of the corner. Lazier was lapping in the high 218s, with one lap at 219. The car simply didn't have enough grip. Barrett was also still a couple of mph off the pace.

With 90 minutes to go, E.J. Viso withdrew his 219.9 from Saturday and "bumped himself" to re-qualify at 221.164. See what I mean about "eating their own young"? That put Scheckter on the bubble at 220.212.

Soooo, the feeding frenzy continued. Scheckter headed back toward the track, and Alex Tagliani also came back out to pit lane from the garage area.

Scheckter withdrew his previous 220 effort at 5:35 p.m. and went out to re-qualify, running 221.496, the fastest average of the day. NOW Ryan Hunter-Reay was on the bubble, at 220.413.

John Andretti was next and ran laps at 220.619, 220.337, 220.077, and 220.096 for an average of 220.282, just not fast enough. That's was his second attempt of the day, leaving him with one.

Conquest had a chance (two of them, actually) to withdraw Tagliani's Saturday run of 220.5, but pulled him out of line each time at the last minute. Team owner Eric Bachelart would come to regret those decisions.

Buddy Lazier was next and ran a lap at 218.526 before waving off.

Stanton Barrett followed and ran a lap at 218.774 before waving off.

John Andretti went out again, and on his final run of the day, bumped Ryan Hunter-Reay with an average of 221.316

The, entering the track with less than a minute to spare, Hunter-Reay was the day's last qualifier, running laps of 220.949, 220.828, 220.323, and 220.290 to bump Alex Tagliani with an average of 220.597.

Wow.

But we're not yet done. At around 11 p.m. Sunday night I received a text message - Bruno got the "thanks for putting yourself on the line, you get the boot" award and Tags got back into the field, as Conquest switched drivers in its qualified car. As the sole full-time driver for Conquest, Tagliani would take over Junqueira's #36 car and start from the rear of the field.

Racing's just like real life, only more so: It costs too much and it ain't fair.

What to Watch on Raceday

I'm a little hesitant to write this last section, since my Bump Day predictions were SO far off, but here goes:

Right now, this is Penske's race to lose. All three Penske cars, and in particular Castroneves and Briscoe, have been quick all month, in all weather conditions. This is the safest bet you can make.

After Penske, the Ganassi duo of Dixon and Franchitti are just the barest tick of the watch behind. Depending on the flow of the race, either could easily be in a position to win on Sunday.

Next up are the KV Racing gang of three (Moraes, Tracy and Townsend Bell) and Graham Rahal for Newman Haas Lanigan. The KV guys, in particular Moraes in their only "full-month" entry, have been quick regardless of track conditions, just like Penske. KV's chief engineer, John Dick, certainly knows his way around this place.

My only concern for Moraes is that he prefers a very high line. That's fine in practice, and even in qualifying. But what's he gonna do in the race once the rubber marbles start building up on the outside? T. Bell is certainly quick, but can be inconsistent. My money here (and I think a great outside bet) is PT. He's tan, rested and ready. And he still remembers 2002...

Rahal? He's young and hungry. The team is certainly capable. But Graham does seem to have an unfortunate habit of sticking it in the fence on ovals. If he can avoid mistakes, he'll be there or thereabouts come Lap 199.

What about AGR? Frankly, they've been struggling this month. But you can't count ANY of that quartet out on Race Day. TK remains the complete racer, both Marco and Danica have always been quick here on Race Day, and Mutoh is getting better all the time.

Wheldon and Panther appear to have "dialed themselves out" as the month has progressed. Unless they can somehow turn things around on Carb Day, I don't see them contending this year. Lloyd, Matos and Justin Wilson are probably not quite there; Servia COULD surprise as a dark horse, but I really don't see anyone else contending.

Feel free to send me a crow sandwich on Monday, May 25...

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